Monday, April 11, 2011

Indirect Speech - A-Z Blogging Challenge

Otherwise known as reported speech, for example:

Kate told Jack what happened.

Sometimes reported speech in fiction just doesn't work. I don't mind it when it's like the example above, where the reader already knows something, but we need to know Jack's reaction to hearing about it too. There is no sense in having Kate explain everything we just read - unless she has a particularly interesting or inaccurate spin on it.

What I don't like is this:

Kate heard the sound of Jack's key in the door at half past six on the dot. She rushed out of the kitchen and told him what had happened when she was in Matt's.


Kate heard the sound of Jack's key in the door at half past six on the dot. She came rushing out of the kitchen and told him that Matt had burned the deeds to the house.

To me, that just sounds a little clunky and forced - it's telling and not showing.

But we don't want to hear about Matt and his fit of temper again. If we're in Kate's head, we've probably just come from Matt's. We don't need 'then he said. . . then I said. . . then he got the matches and WHOOSH.'

What I find works better is something like this:

. . . She came rushing out of the kitchen.
'Are you OK?' Jack asked, as he hung his coat up.
'No,' Kate said. 'I went to visit Matt today.'
It pained Kate to recount the whole afternoon. When she finished, Jack raised his head slowly and looked her in the eyes.

'You know what this means,' he said. 'It means we have the only copy.'

The only reason to include something like this at all is so Jack can say the last line. But the indirect speech in there - 'It pained Kate to recount the whole afternoon' - kind of slips in unnoticed.

Indirect speech is great, and probably saves millions of trees each year. But it's also hard to get right sometimes!


  1. Thanks for the tips on the use of indirect speech!! I love your samples too!!! It's a writerly method that's definitely worth remembering to get right!

    Take care

  2. This is such a good and helpful post. Thanks for that. And oh, you live in Dublin. I fell in love with Ireland when I went for the first time in 2009.

  3. Glad you guys found it helpful! I was mulling over possible 'I' topics for today and found myself realising that indirect speech done badly is really rare, but when it does crop up, I find it makes me very aware that a writer is writing the story. Which, in turn, jolts me out of the world of the characters - never a good thing.

    Karen, glad to hear you were so fond of Ireland when you visited - it's always nice to know we make a good impression :) I visited your blog and found it a great read, have added myself as a follower and look forward to reading more!

  4. Good advice. It's hard to write convincing dialog but just reporting what characters say is pretty dull. I like your solution.

  5. Good advice for writers who maybe want to rush through a scene, or need to get a bit of important dialog in without a huge long scene. Very helpful!

  6. Great advice, with equally great examples. Thank you!

  7. In Latin, there's an entire case dedicated to this kind of sentence construction. (I only know/care about this because it's what I should be studying just about now.)

    But your example is great, it really highlights the power of showing, not telling. We learn a little bit more about everyone this way.

  8. Good example! Indirect speech can really irritate me too - at least when it's clumsily done. :)

  9. Nice to hear so many of you guys have found this post helpful :)

  10. Awesome post, Ellen. I agree completely, as much as I hate seeing dialogue repeat things that have already happened, it can be really jarring to see indirect speech become "Then this happened."


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